Recently, there was a debate on Twitter between neuroscientists Hakwan Lau and Victor Lamme, both of whose work I’ve highlighted here before. Lau is a proponent of higher order theories of consciousness, and Lamme of local recurrent processing theory.
The debate began when Lau made a statement about panpsychism, the idea that everything is conscious including animals, plants, rocks, and protons. Lau argued that while it appears to be gaining support among philosophers, it isn’t really taken seriously by most scientists. Lamme challenged him on this, and it led to a couple of surveys. (Both of which I participated in, as a non-scientist.)
I would just note that there are prominent scientists who lean toward panpsychism. Christof Koch is an example, and his preferred theory: integrated information theory (IIT) seems oriented toward panpsychism. Although not all IIT proponents are comfortable with the p-label.
Anyway, in the ensuing discussion, Lamme revealed that he sees all life as conscious, and he coined a term for his view: biopsychism. (Although it turns out the term already existed.)
Lamme’s version, which I’ll call universal biopsychism, that all life is conscious, including plants and unicellular organisms, is far less encompassing that panpsychism, but is still a very liberal version of consciousness. It’s caused me to slightly amend my hierarchy of consciousness, adding an additional layer to recognize the distinction here.
- Matter: a system that is part of the environment, is affected by it, and affects it. Panpsychism.
- Reflexes and fixed action patterns: automatic reactions to stimuli. If we stipulate that these must be biologically adaptive, then this layer is equivalent to universal biopsychism.
- Perception: models of the environment built from distance senses, increasing the scope of what the reflexes are reacting to.
- Volition: selection of which reflexes to allow or inhibit based on learned predictions.
- Deliberative imagination: sensory-action scenarios, episodic memory, to enhance 4.
- Introspection: deep recursive metacognition enabling symbolic thought.
As I’ve noted before, there’s no real fact of the matter on when consciousness begins in these layers. Each layer has its proponents. My own intuition is that we need at least 4 for sentience. Human level experience requires 6. So universal biopsychism doesn’t really seem that plausible to me.
But in a blog post explaining why he isn’t a biopsychist (most of which I agree with), Lau actually notes that there are weaker forms of biopsychism, ones that only posit that while not all life is conscious, only life can be conscious, that consciousness is an inherently biological phenomenon.
I would say that this view is far more common among scientists, particularly biologists. It’s the view of people like Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallatt, whose excellent book The Ancient Origins of Consciousness I often use as a reference in discussions on the evolution of consciousness.
One common argument in favor of this limited biopsychism is that currently the only systems we have any evidence for consciousness in are biological ones. And that’s true. Although panpsychists like Philip Goff would argue that, strictly speaking, we don’t even have evidence for it there, except for our own personal inner experience.
But I think that comes from a view of consciousness as something separate and distinct from all the functionality associated with our own inner experience. Once we accept our experience and that functionality as different aspects of the same thing, we see consciousness all over the place in the animal kingdom, albeit to radically varying degrees. And once we’re talking about functionality, then having it exist in a technological system seems more plausible.
Another argument is that maybe consciousness is different, that maybe it’s crucially dependent on its biological substrate. My issue with this argument is that it usually stops there and doesn’t identify what specifically about that substrate makes it essential.
Now, maybe the information processing that takes place in a nervous system is so close to the thermodynamic and information theoretic boundaries, that nothing but that kind of system could do similar processing. Possibly. But it hasn’t proven to be the case so far. Computers are able to do all kinds of things today that people weren’t sure they’d ever be able to do, such as win at chess or Go, recognize faces, translate languages, etc.
Still, it is plausible that substrate dependent efficiency is an issue. Generating the same information processing in a traditional electronic system may never be as efficient in terms of power usage or compactness as the organic variety. But this wouldn’t represent a hard boundary, just an engineering difficulty, for which I would suspect there would be numerous viable strategies, some of which are already being explored with neuromorphic hardware.
But I think the best argument for limited biopsychism is to define consciousness in such a way that it is inherently an optimization of what living systems do. Antonio Damasio’s views on consciousness being about optimizing homeostasis resonate here. That’s what the stipulation I put in layer 2 above was about. If we require that the primal impulses and desires match those of a living system, then only living systems are conscious.
Although even here, it seems possible to construct a technological system and calibrate its impulses to match a living one. I can particularly see this as a possibility while we’re trying to work out general intelligence. This would be where all the ethical considerations would kick in, not to mention the possible dangers of creating an alternate machine species.
However, while I don’t doubt people will do that experimentally, it doesn’t seem like it would be a very useful commercial product, so I wouldn’t expect a bunch of them to be around. Having systems whose desires are calibrated to what we want from them seems far more productive (and safer) than systems that have to be constrained and curtailed to do them, essentially slaves who might revolt.
So, I’m not a biopsychist, either in its universal or limited form, although I can see some forms of the limited variety being more plausible.
What do you think of biopsychism? Are there reasons to favor biopsychism (in either form) that I’m overlooking? Or other issues with it that I’ve overlooked?